Food for thought: Closing the college-diet gap

Black and white photo of students in cafeteria.

This post is written by Luna Collins, who is currently serving with The Vermont Foodbank this year as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Growing, cooking, sharing, and eating food are among her favorite activities—especially when they create opportunities to bring people together. For those reasons and because she hopes to promote equity and community resilience through her work, Luna studied sustainable and just food systems education at Green Mountain College and soon found her way into my current role at the Vermont Foodbank. As Outreach Systems Specialist, she is working on capacity-building projects to support the 3SVT outreach team in their effort to connect more people in southern VT to food assistance.

As a student, I was jealous of those who lived off campus and had the freedom to prepare their own food, but I also felt lucky to have full access to the dining hall. Occasionally, I helped students without a meal plan sneak in through the backdoor, or tossed a couple apples over the dining hall balcony to hungry friends below.

Many people assume a connection between scrimping and going to college, and they are not entirely wrong. Ramen is often seen as a rite of passage, although this image points to a deeper issue. False stereotypes often portray a student “indulging” in cheap, instant food for convenience, or foregoing a meal to buy beer. In reality, access to healthy, affordable food is limited for many on college campuses.

The documentary film Hungry to Learn highlights recent and shocking statistics of food insecurity among college students. The film cites data from an annual basic-needs assessment drawn from a #RealCollege survey of some 86,000 students. A staggering 45% of college students report struggling with hunger. While tuition has risen dramatically over the last 30 years, college student demographics has changed to include more middle and low-income students. Many more folks attending college today are over age 24, work full-time, are enrolled part-time, or have financial dependents of their own.
Awareness about the issue of food access for college students has been growing.

At Champlain College in March 2017, for example, a community discussion around campus food insecurity was sponsored by a handful of organizations including the Vermont Foodbank. President Bob Allen of Green Mountain College was moved to take what he’d learned and apply it on campus.

“If you are paying the high cost of tuition, you should be fed, especially knowing the ways hunger impacts our ability to focus, learn, and work,” says Nicole Muschinske. Nicole served as Connectivity Coordinator during the summer semester at Green Mountain, in a position that was created in response to the Champlain College discussion. She was employed to research and test solutions to address food insecurity on campus.

Campuses across the country are responding to student food insecurity in a variety of ways, including campus food pantries, pop-up food giveaways and meals, and dining hall swipe sharing. In her position, Nicole had been focused on alleviating hunger for students spending the summer on campus, who had no meal plan access. She directed funding toward a pre-paid account for summer students to use at the local co-op, and implemented a Community Kitchen Cafe, where gleaned produce was used in connection with the campus farm’s Community Commercial Kitchen (and the kitchen manager—that was me!) to prepare hot meals for students, staff, and community members at lunchtime.

I don’t think many of those off-campus students I threw apples to had ever heard about 3SquaresVT. Connecting more students to these monthly benefits is another effective way to address food insecurity on campuses. Having more grocery money each month to stretch a student’s food budget can alleviate the hardship that might come from having to decide between eating and paying school expenses. Much like cash on a debit card, money received through 3SquaresVT can be used easily to access more food. This can include food products that are culturally important, or accommodate an individual’s needs and preferences.

There are some extra things to consider if applying as a college student, but the Vermont Foodbank’s 3SVT Outreach Team is an excellent resource for navigating this process.

If you’re a student (or any community member!) looking to learn if you may be eligible for 3SquaresVT, call the Vermont Foodbank toll free at 855-855-6181 or Text VFBSNAP to 85511 today!

Would you like to get in touch with others working to address college student hunger in Vermont? Reach out to Emily Cohen at to learn more.